April 2, 2017

Editor's Letter: Forgive Us Our Press Passes

Dan Jenkins during the 2016 Masters
Photo by Dom Furore

Dan Jenkins, the Ancient Twitterer, will be presiding at his 67th Masters and fourth media center this April. When he showed up for his first, in 1951, the press was housed in a canvas tent with openings at each end and 40-watt light bulbs strung along tent poles above the typewriters. "We wore coats and ties and snap-brim hats and felt pretty lucky to be there," he says.

A Quonset hut replaced the tent in 1953, nestled beside the first fairway, and it was still there in 1978 when I arrived with my first press pass. Despite tight quarters and the rat-tat-tat of rainstorms, it seemed pretty grand to me: free barbecue and all the chocolate milk you could drink as long as you didn't take any food out of the building, manned by a 400-pound Pinkerton security guard with the preposterous name of Tiny.

The "new" media center appeared in 1990 in the same place, and it resembled the General Assembly auditorium at the United Nations, enormous and international, or so we thought. It was state of the art, then as now, but Masters chairman Billy Payne decided to build us a new one this year on adjoining property recently acquired by the club in South Carolina—heh, heh, only kidding here, Billy—and when unveiled it'll no doubt be the greatest media center this side of Saturn.

I do have one suggestion, and I'm not kidding, and it's more than coincidental this year because we'll be observing our first Masters in 63 years without the historical presence of Arnold Palmer, who it goes without saying enriched the lives of every golfer and especially every journalist who ever lifted a pimento-cheese sandwich. Indulge me for just a moment longer.

We've always had great characters in the press center, none more idiosyncratic than the ex-World War II POW and British scribe Pat Ward-Thomas, whose voluble nature made his problems everyone's crises. One year he lost his sunglasses at the Masters, which led to a massive search-and-rescue effort with the entire tournament desperately looking for them until late in the day when he sat down to write his dispatch and removed his hat, only to find the missing spectacles perched on his head. "There you are, you little sh--s!" he cried out, bringing a hundred fellow writers to a standing ovation.

The Masters interview room has also been a source of raw entertainment over the years, as two green-jacketed officials charged with conducting the player interviews were labeled Big Silly and Little Silly by the Texas legend Blackie Sherrod. Even Southerners make fun of the Southern accents of Augusta National members. The daily introduction of pros to the press always began with the same question asking how a player should review his round: "What's yo' plezh-uh, jenna-min? Buhdies and bogeys, or hole by hole?"

My favorite exchange at the Masters became a staple of New York Times columnist Dave Anderson's hilarious after-dinner talks. He'd recall that a young Curtis Strange played in the 1976 Masters and finished as low amateur, which got him a trip to the interview room. The chosen member seated next to Strange on the stage asked a disinterested gaggle of reporters if there were any questions. Nobody had any questions because they were more intent on the arrival of the new Masters champion and wanted Strange off the stage as quickly as possible. The member clearly took this as an affront to Bobby Jones and amateur golf and decided to ask his own question.

"Cuh-tis, I have a question for you," he said. "You went to Wake Forest University on an Ahh-nold Pal-mah scholarship. Today you got to play Augusta National with Ahh-nold Pal-mah. What an honor that must have been for you! How'd it feel getting to play with Ahh-nold Pal-mah in the Mas-tuhs Toon-a-mint?"

"Sir, I didn't play with Mr. Palmer," Curtis replied, now wishing he could exit as quickly as the press wanted him to.

There was a pause. "Oh, that's right," the member said. "You didn't play with Ahh-nold. You played with Jack. The greatest golf-ah of all time. How'd it feel playin' Augusta National in the Mas-tuhs Toon-a-mint with Jack Nicklaus?"

"Sir, I didn't play with Mr. Nicklaus," Curtis said. The press was starting to pay attention.

"You didn't play with Ahh-nold? You didn't play with Jack?" the member said. "Who did you play with?"

"Gay Brewer," Curtis said drily.

Out of the back of the interview room a lone voice pierced the silence: "How'd it feel playin' with Gay Brewer?" The Quonset hut rattled with laughter.

There's serious business done by the media every day at the Masters. And a press building of Trumpian scale and lavishness will be welcomed by a new generation of global journalists. But let's not fail to see that the best way to celebrate the cheers and the joy and, maybe most of all, the humanity of the Masters would be to hang a little sign on the outside of the building that says quite appropriately: "The Arnold Palmer Media Center."